Thursday, 6 March 2014

A Fairy-Tale Search for Humanity: Die Frau ohne Schatten

Here's another departure from standard blog style, but I thought it might be worth republishing another piece about Die Frau ohne Schatten ahead of its return to the Royal Opera next week (there are still plenty of tickets, made all the more enticing by several special offers). In this case, this is a more general introduction to the work, albeit one that addresses its problems and complexities. It was originally written for the programme for the Mariinsky performances of the opera at the Edinburgh International Festival in September 2011 (in Jonathan Kent's production, recently released on DVD and Blu-ray on the Mariinsky's own label). I'm grateful for permission to reproduce it here. 

Die Frau ohne Schatten sits squarely and imposingly at the centre of Strauss’s career as an opera composer. It is the seventh of his 15 operas and the third fully collaborative one of the five that Strauss composed to librettos by the Viennese poet and dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The period from the first mention by Hofmannsthal of the new project (late in 1910), through its completion in 1917, to the eventual premiere at the Vienna Opera two years later, covers the central decade of Strauss’s composing life. It also, of course, encompassed the years of a conflict that changed the world for ever.

Die Frau ohne Schatten was conceived in the golden twilight of what the Viennese writer Stefan Zweig (later also a librettist of Strauss’s) called a ‘Golden Age of Security’, consciously positioned as the summation of a great tradition whose foundations were left irreparably shaken by World War I. Work on the opera, moreover, had left both men drained. Strauss, during the final stages of composition, declared ‘let’s make up our minds that Die Frau ohne Schatten shall be the last Romantic opera’. Hofmannsthal continued to develop the subject as the Erzählung, a prose novella, finally completed in 1919; but he promised his composer that subsequent collaborations would be ‘in a light genre, not gigantic burdens on your shoulders, such as Die Frau ohne Schatten must have been’.

The opera’s gestation had been a story of delays, imposed both from without and within. And Hofmannsthal, from the start, had anticipated that the ‘joint chief work’ would take time. ‘With a beautiful subject such as Die Frau ohne Schatten’, he wrote to Strauss in May 1911, ‘so able to become the vehicle of beautiful poetry and beautiful music … it would be a crime if one wanted to hurry, wanted to force oneself.’ And take his time Hofmannsthal did: the first scene of Act I was finally sent to Strauss as a ‘little New Year’s gift’ on 28 December 1913, a full three years after the first mention of the new project; it was not until nearly two years later that the composer had Act III to hand.

For the librettist, Die Frau ohne Schatten set out to realize Goethe’s own operatic ideal, emulate the humanist message of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and present a shimmering kaleidoscope of literary allusion, from East and West. The forbidding spectre of Wagner, too, hovered Keikobad-like over the whole enterprise: Strauss’s vast score used a rich tapestry of Wagnerian leitmotif; Hofmannsthal’s libretto echoed many episodes in the old master’s music dramas.

As a fairy-tale concentrating on the search for humanity, it was also a project particularly close to the librettist’s heart. The precocious young Hofmannsthal, whose essays and poetry had made him the toast of literary Vienna while he was still a teenager in the early 1890s, had finally renounced a life of aesthetic and intellectual isolation, most famously in his ‘Letter to Lord Chandos’ (1902). Die Frau can be understood to reflect his own search for humanity, and broader social relevance, in his work. 

All this ambition seemed justified, however, by the success of the first two Strauss–Hofmannsthal operas. Elektra (1908) had been based on Hofmannsthal’s existing adaptation of Sophocles, originally written for the producer Max Reinhardt in 1903; but Der Rosenkavalier (1911) was fully collaborative, completed on schedule and, in spite of the inevitable niggles and quibbles, as smoothly as could be expected. Among a multitude of ideas for potential successors to that work, those for Ariadne auf Naxos and Die Frau ohne Schatten began to take shape at about the same time, in 1910, initially sharing several elements (notably the idea of incorporating the commedia dell’arte pair of Harlekin and Smeraldine, who became central to Ariadne but also leave traces in the ‘lowly’ couple Barak and his wife in Die Frau).

Hofmannsthal developed a straightforward strategy: Die Frau ohne Schatten would be left to stew on the back burner; Ariadne auf Naxos would be composed as an interim theatrical experiment, a modest thank-you for Reinhardt, who had helped Der Rosenkavalier on to the stage. It would also help Hofmannsthal hone his skills as a librettist in readiness for the larger project. The first version of Ariadne auf Naxos was, indeed, completed in 1912, but Hofmannsthal was still not ready to put pen to paper on the next opera. A trip to Italy was planned in the spring of 1913—a rare extended meeting between Strauss and Hofmannsthal—in which librettist and composer further developed ideas for the new work. Hofmannsthal’s progress remained slow, however: no impatient nagging from his composer could speed him up, so he satisfied Strauss’s need for steady industry with other assignments.

One diversion came in Josephslegende (1914), composed for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the scenario of which, by Hofmannsthal and Count Harry Kessler, was suffused with the sort of obscure religious mysticism that hardly chimed with Strauss’s own personal philosophy. Furthermore, the unsuccessful premiere in October 1912 of the first version of Ariadne auf Naxos—a chamber-scale theatrical hybrid that pitted Hofmannsthal’s reworking of Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme against a new neo-classical opera—led to it being laboriously reworked into the form we know today, and eventually completed in 1916. Strauss also dusted off his own Eine Alpensinfonie, whose sketches went back to the start of the century, completing it 1915 while waiting for the libretto for the final act of Die Frau ohne Schatten.

More than just robbing Strauss of the compositional momentum on which he thived, however, these last two projects in particular are unlikely to have helped focus the composer’s mind. In reworking Ariadne, Strauss composed a new extended prologue full of humour and quick-fire conversational exchanges. This was an operatic idiom he was itching to explore further (he finally got the chance in Intermezzo (1923), composed to his own libretto), but one, as he admitted to his librettist, that had no place in Die Frau. Behind Eine Alpensinfonie’s narrative of a day’s mountaineering, meanwhile, bubbled Strauss’s own philosophy of pragmatic self-determination. He had planned to call the tone-poem Der Antichrist, after Nietzsche, and the sketches reveal that the final movement was at one stage to have expressed an ethos of ‘Befreiung durch die Arbeit: das künstlerische Schaffen’ (‘liberation through work: artistic creation’).

This attitude apparently makes its way into Die Frau ohne Schatten as Barak launches into the final quartet with a paean to hard work: ‘Nun will ich jubeln … nun will ich schaffen’ (‘Now I celebrate … now I create’). But it was an attitude out of sympathy with the Empress’s apparently all-too-easy salvation through renunciation. Indeed, Strauss’s identification with Barak—bluff, generously melodic and hardworking—was immediate, and it is possible to detect a mixture of envy and condescension in the way Hofmannsthal paints the character. Barak’s sturdy, bourgeois work ethic is built on a straightforward desire to provide for his hotly anticipated family; when in Act II ‘higher powers’ (‘Übermächte’, the Nurse calls them) begin to exert their influence, his concern hardly extends beyond the fact that it is too dark to work and his favourite mortar is mysteriously broken.

Such an interpretation gains corroboration through Hofmannsthal’s clear intention, expressed in his first notes for the opera from February 1911, that there be ‘at the centre a bizarre figure like Strauss’s wife’. He wrote to Strauss a couple of weeks later that ‘for one of the women your wife might well, in all discretion, be taken as a model—that, of course, is wholly entre nous, and not of any great importance. Anyway, she is a bizarre woman with a very good soul, au fond: unfathomable, moody, domineering and yet at the same time likeable’.

Discretion was not always Strauss’s strong suit, though, and it did not take long for him to blurt out this parallel to his wife, Pauline, reassuring her that ‘regarding your portrait you need not have any fears’. The composer clearly knew what made her tick, though, and a letter to Karl Böhm in 1943 encouraged the conductor to ensure great care be taken with the scene in Act I in which the Wife is seduced by jewels and fawning servant girls: it is a scene, wrote Strauss, that ‘my wife always particularly looks forward to’.

Audiences, too, have found it easier to identify with the human couple and struggle somewhat, as Strauss did, to sympathize with the shadowless Empress and her archetypal husband. Hofmannsthal was alert to this danger and outlined the importance of the Empress as follows: ‘She has not a great deal to say and yet is actually the most important figure in the opera. You should never forget that. It is all about becoming human; she—not the other one—is the woman without a shadow’. Her husband, meanwhile, was deliberately cast, to borrow the Nurse’s words, as ‘hunter, lover, and nothing more’.

Strauss abandoned an early idea — voiced on the Italy trip, as Hofmannsthal recalled, ‘in the moonlight between San Michele and Bozen’—of using the small ‘Ariadne’ orchestra alone to accompany the action in the spirit world. He nevertheless uses an exquisitely refined palette to accompany the beautiful, fairy-like Empress’s appearance in Act I. She floats gracefully into a world of crystalline textures and brittle musical ideas (her motifs are largely built round empty intervals of 2nds, 4ths and 5ths, avoiding the all-important third degree of the scale). Her vocal line is unassertive, often simply shadowing the instruments of the orchestra. The musical characterization of the Emperor is no less skilful. As the unthinking husband, he is a deliberately unsympathetic creation. Franz Werfel branded him a rapist, and there is a constant, uncomfortable elision of his two roles, as hunter and lover, that is ingeniously captured in Strauss’s score. Macho horn-calls mix with conventionally amorous cantilena, while his strenuous cadences each assert one of two significant keys: E flat, the traditional key of the hunt, and E, the key of Don Juan, associated for ever in Strauss’s oeuvre with erotic pursuits.

The imperial couple’s scenes in Act II, described by Hofmannsthal as ‘lyrical effusions … points of repose between the constantly progressing action on earth’, tested Strauss’s compositional technique yet further. The Emperor’s plangent moonlight serenade, his uncomprehending questions to the implacable Falcon and his desperate attempts to exact retribution on his wife for communing with humanity: they all culminate in a thunderous reiteration of his fate, represented by the ‘Er wird zu Stein’ (‘He turns to stone’) motif first drummed into us in the Spirit Messenger’s early confrontation with the Nurse.

Strauss was surely right, too, to express a certain modest pride in the achievement of the Empress’s remarkable bedroom scene. For long stretches the verbal scaffolding is removed; Strauss’s music is left to stand alone, expressing the Empress’s growing sense of sympathy with Barak, illustrating her vision, articulating her horror at the prospect of her husband’s fate, and anticipating, with the introduction of the trombone’s powerful calls to judgment, the pivotal temple scene in Act III. In that scene, by neat contrast, music cedes its power to words as the Empress resorts to her speaking voice—a decision, Strauss suggested later, that was possibly a result of ‘a certain nervous irritation in the score’ resulting from ‘wartime worries’.

Throughout the compositional process, Strauss sought explanations for Hofmannsthal’s complicated symbols, yet the composer’s main difficulty came after the Empress’s renunciation of the shadow in Act III. Hofmannsthal later called this an ‘allomatic’ solution—using an obscure word to imply change effected through mutual interaction with society. But such a solution was anathema to Strauss’s own ethos of self-determination. It also, arguably, came dangerously close to the Wagnerian doctrine of renunciation that the composer had spent much of his early career uncoupling from its associated musical apparatus—most famously in the tone-poems of the 1890s, including, of course, Also Sprach Zarathustra, based ‘freely on Nietzsche’.

But there was difficulty on a more basic level, too. In his first typescript for the final act, Hofmannsthal marked in pencil against the final chorus for the Unborn Children the following: ‘quasi epilogue (like that tender “end after the end” in Der Rosenkavalier)’. At the end of Die Frau’s long, truncated period of composition, Strauss delivered accordingly, but admitted major difficulty with the final scene, particularly in comparison with Der Rosenkavalier and its celebrated trio.

‘Characters like the Emperor and Empress, and also the Nurse, cannot be filled with red corpuscles in the same way as a Marschallin, an Octavian or an Ochs’, he complained to his librettist. ‘I have now sketched out the whole end of the opera (the quartet and the choruses) and it has got verve and a great upward sweep—but my wife finds it cold and misses the heart-touching flame-kindling melodic texture of the Rosenkavalier trio’. That trio received its melancholy colour from the Marschallin’s own very human renunciation of her younger lover, a situation which, Hofmannsthal noted early on, had strong parallels with that of Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

In the characters of Die Frau ohne Schatten, however, Hofmannsthal sought to express a wider truth: ‘there [in Der Rosenkavalier] the situation is a sentimental one,’ he explained, ‘here it is heroic and spiritual, akin to the atmosphere of Fidelio or Die Zauberflöte.’ Accordingly Strauss’s finale starts to transcend the dramatic concerns of individual characters to touch on something more universal about humanity, art and the nature of social interaction. The grand final ensemble therefore becomes less operatic than symphonic; the narrative surrenders to the classic darkness-to-light trajectory so favoured by Romantic composers. Indeed, several commentators have drawn parallels between the upward-striving spirituality of Hofmannsthal and Strauss’s finale with that of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, with its setting of the final verses of Goethe’s Faust, Part II.

If the celebratory voices of the final quartet come together more anonymously than those of the Rosenkavalier trio, though, Strauss still keeps a symphonic twist up his sleeve. The ‘Er wird zu Stein’ motif, which has haunted the whole score as a reminder of the Emperor’s fate, is reintroduced as the quartet begins to run out of steam. But now it does not drag us into a disorientating, distant minor key; rather, it leads into a dizzying series of modulations, an extended cadence into bright C major and a final outburst for full orchestra, which, piled with motifs and dissonances, seems to struggle under its own celebratory weight. 

The sound of the Emperor’s Falcon, represented throughout the opera by a threateningly dissonant cry in the high woodwind, is a distant memory. The ‘trial’ motif, a stern call to judgment introduced by the trombones in the Empress’s bedroom scene, is now docile, gently underpinning the celebratory message of the final chorus for the Unborn Children. Musically, everything is bathed—not inappropriately—in a sort of post-coital glow.

For all the visceral appeal of Strauss’s score, though, charges regarding the obscurity of Hofmannsthal’s libretto have stuck. Yet it was Hofmannsthal’s sense of ambition that drove Strauss to produce what he believed to be his most remarkable work. Throughout his life Strauss maintained his faith in the transcendent importance of great art, and he seems in particular to have felt that Die Frau ohne Schatten expressed this within its broader human message. ‘May your first performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten mark a new glorious blossoming of the opera house for the healing of German art’, he wrote hopefully in 1920 to a colleague about to stage the work in Berlin. It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that Die Frau ohne Schatten’s beauties and complexities have seen it become an ever more regular sight on the stage in our own difficult, ambiguous times, when the bond between art and humanity is as important as ever.

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